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David Aldridge

On Mike Brown, social activism and an unfamiliar hometown


Posted Aug 25, 2014 3:08 PM - Updated Aug 25, 2014 4:44 PM

Etan Thomas 2011 portrait
Etan Thomas
Morning. While I'm on vacation, we've lined up some excellent Guest Morning Tippers. This week are two men who are familiar with the intersection of sports and life: former NBA player Etan Thomas and NBA TV anchor Matt Winer.

First up, described by Naismith Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as "the Poetic voice of his generation," and by hip-hop legend Chuck D of Public Enemy as "a portal of our future," Etan Thomas has made his mark far beyond the boundaries of a basketball court. Never afraid to voice his opinions during and after his NBA playing career (2001-11), Thomas won the 2010 National Basketball Players Association Community Contribution Award, as well as the 2009 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation Incorporated Legacy Award. He served as a surrogate campaigner for then-Sen. Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and was a guest speaker with Democratic National Committee Chair Gov. Howard Dean during the "Register for Change" 50 State Bus Tour Campaign.

In 2005, Thomas released a collection of poems called More Than An Athlete, and in 2012 he released his second book, Fatherhood (Rising to the Ultimate Challenge), and started a Fatherhood Movement in which he toured the country holding town hall meetings and panels to discuss fatherhood. He has recruited celebrities in every city to help him inspire an entire generation. In January, 2013, he released Voices of the Future, a collection of poems and essays from young writers around the country on topics such as racism, Trayvon Martin, President Obama, gun violence and AIDS. Thomas takes his message to prisons, churches, universities, high schools and middle schools, as well as the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus conventions. His writings have also appeared in CNN.com, ESPN.com, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post and SLAM Magazine.

-- David Aldridge

Athletes stand tall for Mike Brown

By Etan Thomas, for NBA.com

I cannot tell you how many TV and radio shows in the last couple of months have invited me to come on to criticize current athletes for not speaking out on crucial issues that affect our society as a whole.

They tried to get me to publicly bad-mouth Dwight Howard after he deleted a "Free Palestine" Tweet from his account.

They tried to get me to disparage all current athletes and label them all as cowards during the whole Donald Sterling madness, which prompted me to write this article for the Huffington Post.

These critiques of athletes are not new. They have been articulated for years, in barbershops, bars, social media, various articles and blogs, by the everyday fan to the most celebrated scholars. But many still are misguided and inaccurate.

The recent fatal shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., has hit all of us, including athletes. When a national tragedy occurs such as the case of Brown -- the young black unarmed teen who was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson -- it affects everyone, especially those who have kids. Mike Brown was shot a total of six times -- twice in the head and four times in the arms -- a preliminary, private autopsy revealed.

Many question how someone could be struck in the middle of their right palm unless their hands were up? In addition, why would a police officer shoot someone in the top of the head ... and then leave him lying dead in the street for hours? Some view the shooting as a public execution.

This is a parent's worst nightmare. Couple this with the apparent mishandling of the situation by the St. Louis Police Department. As I write this, a whole two weeks after Brown was killed, Officer Wilson has gone into hiding. His social media accounts have been deactivated. Wilson hasn't been charged with anything, but put on paid administrative leave in an undisclosed location.

This has resulted in two weeks of unrest; police clash with demonstrators in what resembles a war zone in a foreign country; bully tactics by the St. Louis Police Department demonize the victim and attempt to justify the shooting with the release of an unrelated video in order to attack Brown's character.

People are searching for answers. An entire community hasn't had the chance to breathe following the Eric Garner choking incident by the NYPD. Many are still healing from the death of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and countless others. USA Today released statistics showing that a white police officer kills a black person nearly two times a week in the United States.

Many black parents are forced to have "The Talk" with their kids at a much younger age than anticipated; how they will be viewed in society, how to react to the police when you are stopped (not if but when); how they will be treated if they commit a crime vs. if someone else commits a crime; how the world is simply not always a fair place.

As President Barack Obama addressed the nation for the third time on the tragedy of Mike Brown's death, the violence that has occurred and the overall issues that need to be addressed -- which include excessive police force and the people's right to assemble peacefully -- he condemned those breaking the law, reassured them that he understood their frustrations, ensured that he was doing everything he could to bring about justice, and spoke to the overall issue: "In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear."

This tragedy did not fail to hit home for many athletes as well. For some reason, people seem to think that the problems and issues of society don't have the same effect on athletes. People seem to think that there is an imaginary bubble that we all live in that protects us from any harm. That simply is not the case. Countless athletes -- and entertainers, rappers, professionals, activists, authors, journalists -- stand in solidarity with Brown and the people of Ferguson, Mo.

A group of players from the Washington Football Team (and, yes, I referred to them by that name for a specific reason -- out of respect to Native American people), in a show of solidarity before their preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, came through the tunnel with their hands up, referencing that Mike Brown reportedly had his hands raised in surrender when he was killed. Safety Brandon Meriweather said that the team's defensive backs decided to do this together as a group.

"We just wanted everybody to know that we supported Michael and acknowledge what happened in Ferguson. It was all our idea, something we decided to do as a group just to show our support," Merriweather told USA Today Sports.

Safety Ryan Clark said: "Brown could have been any of us. That could have been any one of our brothers or cousins.... When you get an opportunity to make a statement and be more than a football player, it's good."

Earlier this week, wide receiver Pierre Garcon posted a photo on Instagram of he and over a dozen other players from the Washington Football Team also with their hands up in the submission pose. He included the hashtags #handsUpDontShoot We are all #MikeBrown.

Kobe Bryant tweeted a link to an ABC news story about racial tensions in Ferguson.

Allen Iverson Tweeted this with an Instagram link of himself wearing a T shirt that said Mike Brown.

The people who criticize an athlete "tweeting" support as being meaningless don't understand the power of social media. Kobe Bryant has 5.5 million followers. Allen Iverson has 780,000-plus followers on Twitter. With just a stroke of a button, they can send out a message to millions of people who are hanging on their every word. That's power.

I asked two of my former team mates with the Washington Wizards, Larry Hughes and Jahadi White -- both of whom are from St. Louis -- how they feel.

Larry Hughes:

"I feel our community's frustration. Even as a successful young black male there is an uneasiness in the presence of law enforcement. Growing up in this country, I know at anytime the situation can turn negative."

Jahadi White:

"There is still this disconnect between young African-Americans and law enforcement that hasn't changed. There's this distrust between us and those who have sworn to "PROTECT and SERVE US. The prevailing sentiment from law enforcement is that every individual that fits in our demographic should be viewed as dangerous and unlawful rather than the citizens that we are first and foremost. Most of the time we are not afforded the same kind of due process that is guaranteed to all under the constitution. The innocent until proven guilty clause very rarely applies to us. I feared for my life just like I know that Mike Brown feared for his staring down the barrel of the gun of the people who are sworn to keep us safe.

"How can it be said that this is the land of opportunity for all when this perception that our lives are less valuable then those of other races exists? This may sound a little extreme but we are left with no other alternative when these INCIDENTS keep occurring and the perpetrators very rarely face justice."

I have a radio show on Washington DC's WPFW FM 89.3 with political and sportswriter Dave Zirin called The Collision, "Where Sports And Politics Collide." We had Syracuse legend Derrick Coleman and Kentucky Wildcat legend Derek Anderson on to discuss the Mike Brown situation.

Derrick Coleman:

"They try to character assassinate our children and show them in a whole different light to make it justifiable and say this is why he got shot. Over some cigarillos? The police officer didn't even know anything about that.

"We who live in Black Communities across America understand the situation with the police. We have never looked at them to protect and serve. It's just in recent years it's been brought to the forefront through social media.

"We have to change the landscape of what is going on in Urban America and until that happens we are going to continue to have outbursts like we're having with our youth and the police department."

Derek Anderson:

"All these policeman can easily use a taser. If you're quick enough to pull a gun you can use a taser. You don't have to shoot anybody. If you and me are having a confrontation and you're bigger than me and I pull out a taser I can eliminate the situation. You won't die. I can easily eliminate any threat of you hurting me. The police can do that -- they choose to not do that and they are getting the backlash for it and it's going to continue to get worse. Something is going on bigger than what we are seeing. We just have to pay attention to it."

A tragedy such as this doesn't escape athletes. Contemporary black athletes are capable of carrying on the tradition of their brave brothers and sisters before them who led their teams to victory on the field and led the way in challenging racial disunity and injustice in the world outside the athletic arena (all while potentially facing the petty and insipid criticism of reactionary media).

Unfortunately, that criticism has come from all quarters, including sympathetic ones in television and in print. The New York Times columnist and author William C. Rhoden argued in his book, "Forty Million Dollar Slaves," that contemporary athletes fail to speak out or otherwise act on issues of importance to their communities.

He wrote:

Now that they occupy a position where they can be more than symbols of achievement, where they can actually serve their communities in vital and tangible ways, while also addressing the power imbalance within their own from a position of greater strength, they seem most at a loss, lacking purpose and drive....The Black Athlete has abdicated their responsibility to the community with treasonous vigor.

Let me first say that I enjoyed Rhoden's book and found it to be a very informative history of the black athlete in America. It touched on the unfortunate paths and states of mind that have overtaken the realities of some black athletes of today. I agree with his position that "making the evolution to be a completely free man is realizing that racism is more virulent and determined than ever before." In fact, I think the book is a must-read for all athletes -- if only to serve as an example of what not to become.

That being said, I respectfully disagree with the overall notion that the black athlete today is simply "lost," as Rhoden labels us in his book.

He said that athletes are isolated and alienated from their "native networks," and are "increasingly cloistered into new networks as they become corporatized entities...excised from their communities as they fulfill their professional responsibilities and disconnected from the networks of people, in many cases predominately African-American, who once comprised their 'community' (p. 177). This leads to a general ignorance of the issues impacting a vast majority of African-Americans across the country."

This couldn't be further from the truth. And painting the entire, illustrious roster of current black athletes with this broad brush of ridicule, one that leaves no room for exceptions, is just wrong. If he had said "some" black athletes of today, I wouldn't have had an objection. But to say "the contemporary tribe," as he calls us, "with access to unprecedented wealth is lost," is completely inaccurate.

The book's subtitle, The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, indicates that Rhoden is fully convinced that the modern-day black athlete's willingness to advocate for social and economic justice for all black people has diminished since the 1960s -- and perhaps disappeared, and that there currently exists a "vacuum of leadership" that has led to black athletes becoming a "lost tribe."

There is a common myth about black athletes and social activism. It is that our disconnection from the black community and the retaliation black athletes face from reactionary sports media has fractured the "common cause" that once united all black athletes when they stood for causes for social justice. Many contemporary sports writers and analysts agree with Rhoden's assertion that after centuries of black athletes who faced the most dire consequences -- loss of livelihood and death threats -- we have now entered a period where an unspoken code encourages contemporary black athletes to avoid "rocking the boat" lest they risk losing their lucrative sponsorships and opportunity to compete professionally.

For black professional athletes who do remain connected to the black community in significant ways, Rhoden focuses on the harsh reprisal that they are likely to face at the hands of a largely white, reactionary sports media (p. 209). Also at the root of the problem for contemporary athletes, Rhoden outlines, is the threat that engaging in causes and issues that management might consider politically unsavory would consequently lead to the loss of earnings potential.

However, as seen with Garcon, the entire Washington Football team's secondary, this prediction did not prove true. They didn't receive any ridicule from the team for injecting themselves into a national tragedy and using the company logo to do so.

Now for the brave Twitter trolls who hide behind their keyboards, that's another story. Unfortunately, the same people who are quick to criticize athletes for not using their various positions as platforms to speak out on various current issues will be the same ones to bombard them with vicious attacks when they do. Some fans simply do not respect the opinions of athletes and view them as simple entertainment. Some want them to simply be seen and not heard -- to simply shut up and play. However, not everyone is affected by those "brave" social media trolls who lurk in the corners of blog comment sections and Twitter.

Again, I have tremendous respect for Rhoden and I feel that "Forty Million Dollar Slaves" should be required reading for every athlete beginning in high school. It gives us a history in knowing the tremendous sacrifices that were made for us. It gives us an account of the athletes that have come before us to lay the foundation so that we can have the opportunities we have today.

The decisions made by Garcon, Merriweather and the entire secondary of the Washington Football team to publicly stand in solidarity, the passionate statements made by Missouri natives and former Washington Wizards White and Hughes, and by Coleman and Anderson should not be dismissed as singular and nominal. These are not the actions of a group that is, "isolated and alienated from their native networks" or someone possessing an "ignorance of the issues impacting a vast majority of African-Americans across the country."

Rhoden and those who criticize black athletes for a lack of social consciousness should recognize, with the same vigor and thorough analysis, the efforts of contemporary black athletes who improve their communities and stand up for what they believe.

Familiar place made unrecognizable

Secondly, here's NBA TV colleague Matt Winer on the place where young Mike Brown died. Winer grew up in the St. Louis area, graduated from the University of Missouri, worked at KSDK-TV in St. Louis and is currently a studio host for NBA TV and the anchor of NBA TV's GameTime.

By Matt Winer, for NBA.com

matt winer studio shot
Matt Winer

Long before the far-reaching significance of Michael Brown's death sank in, I was struck by the notion of the world turning its eyes toward Ferguson, Mo. For me, Ferguson was always just one among dozens of municipalities that make up St. Louis County, and in particular North County, where I grew up. Before I could absorb the shooting's shocking circumstances and its wider implications, I had to reconcile that unremarkable Ferguson had become #Ferguson, the rallying cry and riot. I never lived there, but my childhood was always close by: Berkeley, Bridgeton, Florissant. Grandma lived in St. John. Another set of grandparents was in Dellwood. Until college, my entire life was within ten miles of where Brown drew his final breath.

My history does not qualify me as an expert, neither on the town, nor the circumstances of Brown's short life and disturbing death. Certainly not on the tense intersection of the city's mostly-white police force and mostly African-American population. Yet unlike most of the millions glimpsing the uprising via screens, unlike the media dispatched to cover and quite possibly stoke the madness, I knew Ferguson, and found myself in disbelief of image after stunning image. The grief, outrage, lawlessness and disproportionate response would be alarming anywhere, but in St. Louis, it all seemed surreal. Civil unrest? Looting? Tear gas? The National Guard? In North County? A volcanic eruption in Forest Park would have been no more jarring. I understood the facts, but had trouble parsing them. Maybe I'd been gone too long. Maybe I didn't know the place as well as I'd thought.

--

Every day, in places near and far from home, St. Louisians discover one another and almost immediately compare where they went to high school. The ritual is an inside joke among natives, and if not as unique to the city as toasted ravioli, is peculiar for its inexorability and power. The answer creates specific expectations regarding the answerer, and, accurately or not, frames the acquaintance in a socio-economic box.

Had Brown left Ferguson, had he lived, St. Louisians would have asked him, too. His answer, Normandy High School, would have elicited equal parts astonishment, sympathy and wonder. I've been to Normandy several times, as a reporter covering its excellent prep holiday hoops tournament, and long ago with my own high school team, visiting the Vikings' grand theater of a gym as a conference opponent. It was rough around the edges then, and worse now. The Normandy School District lost its accreditation two years ago. Last year the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called Normandy High the area's "most dangerous school." According to Missouri Department of Education statistics, Normandy's four-year graduation rate for boys is under 48 percent. Brown's diploma made him exceptional there. But in response to the "high school" question, his answer would have been an in, because as provincial as St. Louisians can be, they are just as loyal, a quality I hope everyone on the ground in Ferguson can retain over the coming months.

--

I don't get there much any more. Although I once returned to St. Louis for local TV, I haven't lived in North County since high school. Only one of my closest friends remains there. The area has changed. Black families have moved North from the city; many white families have moved out. Reporters looking for macro causes of Brown's death have seized on statistics ranking St. Louis as one of America's most racially segregated cities, but North County, including Ferguson, is relatively diverse. Our high school squad -- a nearly even mix of white and black players during my two years on varsity -- played all-black teams, all-white teams, and teams that looked like us. For us, race wasn't an issue. That's basketball, not life.

When I think of the kind of people who inhabit the area where Brown was raised, I think of class, not race. Ferguson isn't well-to-do. Neither is it a slum, and it's certainly more than the few blocks seen on TV as a battleground. There's a small, revitalized downtown, with a farmer's market, antique shops, parks, a micro-brewery, and working class people who visit them, people who mostly aren't in conflict, in tears.

But Brown's death tapped into a resentment that extends beyond the agony of an 18-year-old's passing. The people who made their stand on West Florissant Avenue were moved -- no, overwhelmed -- by a sense of injustice. Local and federal investigations into his shooting will examine the facts of Brown's death, but when citizens feel targeted by police hired to protect and serve them, the story has become larger than one incident, however unthinkable it may be. As I saw footage of stores in flames and rubber bullets tracing through air I used to breathe, that's what resonated.

Something is wrong close to home, something I have a hard time comprehending, let alone addressing. As my mother put it, I hate that this is what St. Louis is known for right now. It shouldn't be that way. Or maybe it should, for the good of us all. Either answer is troubling, because until Ferguson became #Ferguson, it was just North County. Now it has an identity, and I don't recognize it at all.

TNT analyst David Aldridge is on vacation. His regular Monday morning column for NBA.com, the Morning Tip, is on hiatus. It will return in September. You can write Aldridge here, or follow him on Twitter.

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